I seem to get this question at least once or twice a week so, here goes. A lot of kids who are playing sports nowadays started playing at a very young age, around 5-6 years old. For the first year or so, it’s a fun learning process. They run, learn how to catch and throw a ball, learn some rules of the chosen sport, etc. Although it’s still fun for most, as they get older, the sport also becomes more competitive. By the second and third year, the play gets more intense. In baseball, kids are swinging the bats harder and faster, throws become more frequent and further. The same applies with football. Kids are hitting harder. There are more frequent practices. This increase in intensity and demand on kids bodies goes on and on with all sports.
With all of these factors working, kids are, without a doubt, going to be prone to more frequent injuries. The simple reason is because their strength is not up to par with the skills demanded by their coaches and the game. By the time kids reach the ages of 10 or so, you start to see injuries such as, sore throwing shoulders, knee and low back injuries, hamstring strains, foot and ankle problems and so on. How can we help prevent these injuries from occurring parents should ask? Strength training of course! So, when is the right time for kids to start strength training?
Through my experiences and research, I would have to say the age of 10 is about the right time for kids to get involved in a moderate strength training program. At that age, muscle hypertrophy (size) will not develop, but strength in the muscle and connective tissue will. And that strength plays a significant part in injury reduction. As an added benefit, strength training will help increase sport performance.
So, what do I mean by “strength training”? One of the myths that’s often heard when you hear of a kid participating in a weight training program is that “it’s going to stunt his growth”. The truth is a moderate strength training program will do quite the opposite if the program IS PROPERLY DONE. What a proper strength program means is the right exercise protocol, correct exercise mechanics and, most of all, a trainer who knows what he or she is doing. A strength program will actually stimulate growth. Look at it this way, as you see a kid playing you see them jumping off walls, benches or whatever. They pick up things that might be awkward in size or even too heavy (things that generally scare the hell out of parents). Yet, they seem pretty resilient when it comes to doing those things, right?
In a protected environment in which they are taught to perform exercises in the right way, the chance of injury goes down greatly. On the down side, if training is not done the right way then there is a chance of growth plate injury to long bones, toe joints and soft tissues. Such damage could cause stunted growth, acute or chronic pain or impaired motor functions.
Our youth programs are carefully monitored. Even before a weight is ever touched, we make sure there is at least a 20 minute dynamic and mobility warm up to get kid’s bodies ready to strength train. The beginning weight training exercises start with mostly with bodyweight. Then, they slowly progress using small loads of weight. The load progresses, increasing approximately 10% each week. In my opinion, joint integrity must be strengthened before any significant loads are added. By joint integrity, I mean the stabilizers of the rotator cuff, sub-scapular (shoulders), hip rotators, psoas, transverse-abdominis, ACL, MCL and PCL (knees). It takes a certain amount of knowledge and experience to properly train kids and reduce the risk of injuries. If done right, the rewards far outweigh the risk and the reduction of preventative injury almost guarantees a long time of competitive fun!